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'Cross Roads': A Writing Career Built On Faith
Originally published on Sun December 2, 2012 3:41 pm
Five years ago, Paul Young was working three jobs outside Portland, Ore., when he decided to write a Christian tale of redemption for friends and family. He went down to an Office Depot and printed off 15 copies of the story he called The Shack.
The manuscript was never intended for broad publication, but it eventually caught the attention of two California-based pastors. They took it to 26 different publishers but got rejected each time. So the pastors set up their own publishing company and started a whispering campaign among churches.
Today, The Shack has sold more than 18 million copies.
Young, 57, has just released a new book, Cross Roads. It tells the story of Anthony Spencer, a ruthless businessman and all-around despicable guy, who finds himself in a coma. He then awakens into a dream world and begins a journey to find salvation.
Young spoke with Guy Raz, host of Weekends All Things Considered about his life and career.
On publishing The Shack
"I had no intention of publishing it. It had never even crossed my mind to publish it, so it's not like this was a career path, or a great desire, or a burning wish, or any of those kinds of things. All I was trying to do is get it done for Christmas. Mostly, [I did it] at the encouragement of [my wife] Kim. ... Kim had been saying, 'You know, someday, as a gift for our kids' — and we have six kids, aged 19 to 32 – 'would you put in one place how you think, because you think outside the box.' And that's all I was trying to do, was get that done by Christmas."
On writing The Shack for himself and his family
"I saw it as a way to communicate to my kids a story about who the character and nature of God, who showed up in my life and brought some healing, is. Because I am a religious kid, from the core. ... My dad was a preacher. My relationship, for example, with my father — very difficult, and very painful, and it took me 50 years to wipe the face of my father off the face of God. So, I am not writing this in order to try to help someone. I am writing this to explore my world for my kids, in order for the questions to be OK. These are good questions, and these are questions about faith, about the kindness, the goodness of God, things that were really such a struggle for me."
On the controversial imagery in The Shack
"My mother used the word 'heretic.' ... When Papa came through the door, and for those of you who haven't read it, you know, Papa, who is God the father, is a large, black African-American woman. ... My mom closed the book, called my sister and said, 'Your brother is a heretic!' You know, and she meant it, and it took a whole series of beautiful situations for her to get across that bridge. But yeah, I have had this pushback about the imagery, but let me say that, in general, the overwhelming response has been positive.
On his creative process
"I had this experience — and this was early when The Shack had just begun to take off — and I woke up in the middle of the night — and it's never happened to me before and it's never happened since — and I was literally caught in a waterfall. It's like I was sitting up in bed in a waterfall of creative ideas. And about an hour into this I thought to myself, 'I need to get up and write this down,' and it all stopped. And I really felt "the voice." You know, to me it's the Holy Spirit, who just said, 'Isn't that what you always do? You don't trust that creativity is a river,' and I said you're right, I don't trust, and I said I'm not going to live like that anymore. And immediately the waterfall started again for an hour until I fell asleep. So every time I go to write, my first thought is: I trust, I trust that this is a river. And part of this is that I finally — I am 57 years old — I have finally got to the place in my life where I want to live just inside the one day's worth of grace."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Five years ago, Paul Young was working three jobs outside Portland, and he decided to write a book - a Christian story of redemption really just for friends and family. He ran off about 15 copies at Office Depot, and he called it "The Shack."
Well, one of those copies caught the attention of two California-based pastors. They brought it to 26 publishers, all of whom rejected the manuscript. So the pastors set up their own publishing company and printed the book themselves. They started a whispering campaign among churches, and today, "The Shack" has sold more than 18 million copies.
PAUL YOUNG: The story resonated so deep because the book gave people a language to have a conversation about God that was not a religious conversation but a relational conversation.
RAZ: Paul Young has just released his second novel. It's called "Crossroads." And it tells the story of Anthony Spencer. He's a ruthless businessman who ends up in a coma, and that's where his journey to salvation begins.
YOUNG: What can happen in that space, in the space between life and death? Inside that space is where I find Tony, and then begin to help him deal with his own choices.
RAZ: This book and your previous book, as we'll talk about, is very much about faith and about grace. And in this one, we're talking about a man who is estranged from God. That's who he is when we meet him.
YOUNG: Correct. He is kind of an agnostic, for whatever the reasons are, yup.
RAZ: And this is about reconnecting with God.
YOUNG: Yeah. And from a different point of view, it's also about the question: how does God break in? If God really is good all the time and is a being who pursues us with relentless affection and yet is not a violator of our ability to choose, how does that God find a way into our resistances?
RAZ: I want to ask you about the phenomenon of Paul Young, because 10 years ago, we should say, you were not even published. You didn't even have an agent. You didn't have anybody interested in your work. You published your first novel, "The Shack," on your own quite literally, right? I mean, you took it to Kinko's or something and then...
YOUNG: That was Office Depot.
RAZ: Office - forgive me.
YOUNG: And it's even worse than that. I had no intention of publishing it. It had never even crossed my mind to publish it. So it's not like this was a career path or a great desire, a burning wish or any of those kinds of things. All I was trying to do was get it done for Christmas.
RAZ: It was a story that you wanted to write for family and friends.
YOUNG: Correct, mostly at the encouragement of Kim.
RAZ: Your wife.
YOUNG: Yup. And Kim had been saying, you know, someday, as a gift for our kids - and we have six kids age 19 to 32 - would you put in one place how you think, because you think outside the box. And that's all I was trying to do is get that done by Christmas.
RAZ: The story of "The Shack," your previous book, is about Mackenzie Philips. He's a father - essentially a terrible tragedy. His daughter is abducted and killed. And this sort of spirals him into a deep depression. He goes to a shack - literally a shack - to try and find whatever it is he's looking for. And that's really where we get into that story. How did you come up with that idea?
YOUNG: You know, people have asked me: How could you use this particular scenario for your kids? And I'm going: Well, you know, to me, the greatest loss a human being can experience is the loss between a parent and a child. There is something about the way that you love your children and the loss that happens when you lose a child that is beyond any kind of pain that anybody experiences anywhere else.
And that loss, especially in the face of evil or tragic circumstances, those losses ask some of the best questions - questions about why and who is God. And if God is good and powerful, why didn't God stop this or on and on and on, real questions. And those are the ones that I wanted to talk to my own kids about.
RAZ: I read that you've said that that time, that brief period of time that that character, Mackenzie Philips, spends in the shack is actually a metaphor for an 11-year period of your own life.
YOUNG: That is absolutely correct.
RAZ: You've been open about your own pain and the pain that you've caused others. You were sexually abused as a boy. You were not always faithful to your wife. When you wrote "The Shack," did you see it as the kind of book that might be able to help somebody who is in a similar situation get out of it?
YOUNG: No. I saw it as a way to communicate to my kids a story about who the character in nature of God who showed up in my life and brought some healing, because I'm a religious kid from the core. You know...
RAZ: You're a child of...
YOUNG: Missionary parents. And my dad was a preacher. And my relationship, for example, with my father was very difficult and very painful. And it took me 50 years to wipe the face of my father completely off the face of God. And so I'm not writing this in order to try to help someone. I'm writing this to explore my world for my kids in order for the questions to be OK.
These are good questions. And these are questions about faith, about the kindness, the goodness of God, things that were really such a struggle for me.
RAZ: I'm speaking with writer Paul Young. He's the author of the novel "The Shack," which has sold 18 million copies. His new book is called "Crossroads." In both of these books, "The Shack" and "Crossroads," you represent God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit in, I would say, some nontraditional forms. And as you know, there's been controversy about it. I mean, there are people who have called you blasphemous.
YOUNG: My mom used the word heretic.
RAZ: Heretic. Forgive me.
YOUNG: She did. See, when Papa came through the door - and for those of you who haven't read it, you know, Papa, who is God the Father, is a large black, African-American woman - and...
RAZ: This is in "The Shack," I should mention.
YOUNG: Yeah, exactly. My mom closed the book, called my sister and said: Your brother is a heretic, you know, and she meant it. And it took a whole series of beautiful situations for her to get across that bridge. But, yeah, I've had this pushback about the imagery. But let me say that in general, the overwhelming response has been positive.
RAZ: How has the process of writing these books in sort of burrowing deep into your mind and all of your experiences and all things you know about your faith, how have those things changed your faith, changed the way you think about it and look at it?
YOUNG: You know, I think it's deepened things. It hasn't changed things, because when I look at my life, and I look at the mess, and I look at the 11 years of working through all my stuff, everything that matters to me was in place before I wrote "The Shack." You know, "The Shack" didn't bring me identity, worth, value, significance, security, meaning, purpose, love - any of those things - but things that really matter.
I had this experience, and this was early when "The Shack" had just begun to take off. And I woke up in the middle of the night - and it's never happened to me before. It's never happened since. And I was literally caught in a waterfall. It was like I was sitting up in bed in a waterfall of creative ideas. And at about an hour into this, I thought to myself I need to get up and write this down. And it all stopped.
And I really felt, the voice - you know, to me, it's the Holy Spirit - who just said: Isn't that what you always do? You don't trust that creativity as a river. And I said: You're right. I don't trust. I said: I'm not going to live like that anymore. And immediately, the waterfall started again for another hour until I fell asleep. And so every time I go to write, my first thought is: I trust. I trust that this is a river. And part of that is, I finally - I'm 57 years old - I have finally got to the place in my life where I want to live just inside the one day's worth of grace.
RAZ: Paul Young. He's the author of the novel "The Shack" that sold 18 million copies. His new book is called "Crossroads," and it's now out. Paul Young, thank you so much.
YOUNG: Guy, thanks. It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.